Kusal Perera - an unlikely hero
Just a couple of weeks ago, Sri Lanka's Kusal Perera wasn't exactly a household name. The 28 year old has had a reasonably successful T20I career and a solid ODI one as a slashing batsman, but in the Test arena he hadn't quite been able to replicate those performances.
In 14 Test matches and 26 innings, he had managed 686 runs at an average of 28.58 – not exactly eye-popping numbers. He had passed 50 just four times – two of those in his first two innings' back in 2015 – and 100 on one occasion – and that occasion was against Zimbabwe.
When he entered the field at 3/52 with his side chasing 304 for victory against a South African attack boasting the likes of Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander, Kagiso Rabada and impressive orthodox bowler Keshave Maharaj, then, his side probably didn't have much reason to expect him to dig them out of the deep hole in which they found themselves. He had made a solid 51 in the first innings, however, so maybe form was on his side.
He put on a few runs with Oshada Fernando, but when a couple of quick wickets fell his team was 5/110, just under 200 runs in arrears and with no recognised batsmen other than Perera and all-rounder Dhananjaya de Silva left to come. But de Silva hung around, scoring 48 in a 96 run partnership that he shared with Perera. At 5/206 and with under 100 runs to go, suddenly a win was a distinct possibility.
Then de Silva fell after South Africa reviewed an LBW decision which was initially given not out. The following ball, Suranga Lakmal was caught at slip. Perera, on 71, was suddenly running out of partners. Lasith Ambuldeniya hung around for a little longer, but his score of 4 – and more importantly, his 12 balls faced – wasn't enough.
Kasun Rajitha was next, with all of 20 Test runs to his name. Unsurprisingly, he didn't last long either, falling just a couple of overs later for just 1. With Perera on 86 and his side at 9/226, it seemed like the most Sri Lanka could salvage from the match was a second Test century for the man who had carried their innings.
The number 11 batsman was Vishwa Fernando, who likely didn't inspire a lot of confidence in his team. The 27 year old was in just his fourth Test match, and his eighth International innings. He was coming off a whopping 1* in the first innings. To provide some context, his previous six innings' had seen him surpass 0 on just a solitary occasion – though, in fairness, one of those scoreless innings was a not out.
Kusal Perera, however, was buoyed by Fernando's presence, as he would later recount. Upon arriving at the crease, the number 11 tells his team's only hope that even if he can't hit the ball with his bat, he'll hit it with his body. This, evidently, was sufficient for Perera to have enough faith in his batting partner to put him on strike early in the over, right from the beginning of the partnership.
Fernando wasn't scoring runs, but he wasn't getting out either. Perera smashed a six over long on, then a couple of overs later a four, and suddenly he was on 99. Still 65 runs behind, at least he might get that elusive century.
And get it he did, flicking one to square to bring up a brilliant hundred. But he was far from done.
The going was slow, with Fernando not scoring a solitary run until he had been at the crease for 12 overs and faced 23 balls. During that time, however, Perera had been toiling away. A number of overs went by without more than a run or two, but the occasional boundary had been mixed in and the required total was suddenly down to below 50.
When Fernando did finally score a run, he got five of them, courtesy of a shy at the stumps from Dean Elgar that would have ended the match had he connected, but instead yielded an extra four runs to the visitors. Two balls later, Perera hit a six, then a single to retain the strike next over after Fernando played out the remaining ball. Only 22 runs to go.
And they came in a flurry. Perera top-edged Rabada for six, then dispatched Steyn over square leg for six more the following over. A couple of two's and a boundary and they'd won.
Perera ended the match unbeaten on 153 off 200 deliveries, and after over five hours of batting. Fernando's contribution to the extraordinary 78* run partnership was a pivotal 6* off 27 balls.
Incredibly, Sri Lanka, the then seventh ranked Test side, a side which had just been demolished by an Australian side coming off its first ever home defeat against India, had defeated the world's second best side and probably the world's best bowling attack on their own home surface.
Perera's innings defied belief, logic, and expectation. Previously a seemingly innocuous Test player, now the creator of what is in the conversation for the best innings in Test match history. According to ESPNCricinfo writer Anantha Narayanan, that's exactly what it was. Other names on that list include the likes of Don Bradman, Brian Lara and Sanath Jayasuriya. Atop them all, however, sits Kusal Perera. And after fending off Steyn, Rabada and Philander in the most trying of circumstances, who could argue with that?